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More than 70% of children would rather learn to program a robot than to speak a foreign language, according to research by Ocado.
The online supermarket found most parents would also prefer their primary school children to learn coding than French.
“Writing software is an amazingly exciting and creative discipline. You start with a blank canvas and then, step by step, you create something that can solve a problem, play a game, or control a robot,” said Ocado director of technology Paul Clarke.
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“Seeing what you have created actually do something, and knowing that it came out of your head, is incredibly satisfying.”
In part, Clarke thinks this is due to an increase in affordable computing technologies such as the Raspberry Pi, as well as the new curriculum.
Every firm is a technology firm
But like many firms with an online offering, Ocado considers itself in equal parts a retailer and a technology company, making the IT industry skills gap an important issue.
The retailer’s tech division, Ocado Technology, recently developed a platform for running end-to-end commerce, fulfilment and logistics, which will run in the public cloud to build Ocado’s automated warehouses.
As the firm looks to grow Ocado Technology’s pool of engineers from 650 to 1,000, it is finding the IT skills gap an obstacle to recruiting the best people for the job.
“Recruiting the quality and quantity of software engineering talent continues to be a key organisation constraint for us,” said Clarke.
“Computer science needs to be treated as the serious engineering discipline it undoubtedly is, as it is also the language of the digital economy. We need all our children to not just be competent in it, but fluent.”
Computing viewed as the “easy option”
Younger children may be keen to learn to code, but once they reach secondary school more than half of students think a computer science GCSE is the “easy option”.
To combat the skills gap, Ocado proposes that computer science is made mandatory at GCSE level, just as English and maths are.
“This educational deficit, and the misconceptions regarding computer science that it reinforces, means there is a serious shortfall in the number of UK-grown quality software engineers entering industry, especially women,” said Clarke.
“So whilst we will continue to recruit in the UK as fast as we can, the seemingly inevitable recruitment shortfall is leading us to open four more nearshore development centres in mainland Europe.”
Supplementary to this campaign, the online retailer has developed Rapid Router, a free application for teaching coding, and Python, which is already used by more than 30,500 pupils and teachers.
Ocado Technology is also releasing videos to assist teachers with the delivery of the new computer science curriculum.
“Learning to code is important for children as a tool in their wider education, in their careers and as parents of the future. Mandating computer science at GSCE level would send a vital message about the importance of teaching children to code.” said Clarke.